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Ed School Professors Reflect on Shift to Online Instruction

Virtual education experts from the Graduate School of Education said Harvard's transition to online instruction could be a learning experience for both faculty and students.
Virtual education experts from the Graduate School of Education said Harvard's transition to online instruction could be a learning experience for both faculty and students. By Lu Shao
By Austin W. Li and Kavya M. Shah, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard’s transition to online instruction could serve as an unprecedented learning experience for both faculty and students, according to virtual education experts at the Graduate School of Education.

Though the new model poses various logistical challenges and raises questions of educational equity, it could also present opportunities for innovation and help prepare students for the future, per the experts.

All University courses will move to remote instruction beginning after spring recess, University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced in an email to Harvard affiliates March 10. Even before the official announcement, the University had instructed faculty on how to use Zoom, an online learning and screen sharing platform.

David A. Dockterman, a lecturer in the Technology, Innovation, and Education program, said the shift to virtual instruction would mark an entry into uncharted territory for both professors and students.

“In the short term, it’s going to be a lot of experimentation,” Dockterman said. “I think we should expect a lot of fits and starts as people are mastering both the technical elements of this shift and also experimenting with new pedagogical elements.”

Associate Dean for Learning and Teaching Matthew L. Miller cited a lack of broadband access as a potential barrier to achieving an equitable learning environment.

“I’m worried about the things that are especially hard for us to control in the communities in which students are living,” he said. “They will require us to be very flexible, understanding, and in close partnership with students about what they're experiencing.”

In recognition of potential sources of inequity, student groups at Yale and Stanford have called for more lenient grading policies. Harvard undergraduates have circulated a petition proposing a “Double A” system, in which students would receive either an A or A- for all classes this semester.

But some education experts said students and faculty should attempt to make the best of the opportunity.

Professor in Learning Technologies Christopher J. Dede said the “skills” gained from online learning could prove “very important” in students’ future endeavors.

“Whatever it merits in an academic setting, it’s going to be very important in a global digital economy,” he said. “Having some practice in academic settings with learning how to do that well is a bonus.”

“Hopefully, Harvard facing this crisis will develop some really interesting and powerful models that come out of the smart faculty and students that are part of this community,” he added.

Miller said that maintaining cohesiveness with classmates in the months ahead will be essential in smoothing the transition to virtual instruction.

“The idea of staying connected and learning together is really important,” he said. “But what I’m seeing is a lot of faculty really interested in making sure that students feel connected to one another and feel like we can do it together.”

—Staff writer Austin W. Li can be reached at austin.li@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @austinwli.

—Staff writer Kavya M. Shah can be reached at kavya.shah@thecrimson.com.

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College LifeAcademicsGrad School of EducationCollege NewsVirtual EducationCoronavirus